By Rob van Alstyne
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The story of Tom and Mick Novak should be a John Cusack movie. The year is 1993. The cute and quirky record collector, Mick, is perusing the aisles of dusty records, hunting for jangly '60s girl-group hits. Nestled among boxes of golden oldies, she spots the tall and lanky Tom, a walking rock 'n' roll encyclopedia. They exchange glances, then phone numbers.
"True love at the record show," Mick says, smiling.
Hymie's Record Show was a year old then, organized by the late James "Hymie" Peterson, of Hymie's Records, and Rich Shelton. Flash forward 16 years. Tom and Mick are married, living in a cozy house in St. Paul complete with His and Hers rooms for their record collections. And the record show where they first met? They now run it. Every eight weeks, the Novaks take their post behind the KFAI radio sponsor table in the Minneapolis VFW, watching customers mill around, looking for that gem 45 they didn't know they needed.
"It's a meeting place for like-minded people," Tom says. "You're into this strange thing you're obsessed with, and you meet all these other people who are also obsessed with the same thing."
There's the guy in his 20s with the face tattoos and the girl with the piercings standing hunched over as they dig through crates. A record vendor with long, gray hair and a Grateful Dead T-shirt is chatting with customers, while on the other side of the room old men in blue jeans are flipping through country-and-Western singles. And then there is the Tiny Tim lady, a record show regular.
"She's a big Tiny Tim fan," says Joe Butler, who has been selling at the record show for seven years. "She dresses just like him. And she looks like him. And she's bought all my Tiny Tim stuff."
It's a friendly, if weird, crowd. Then again, whether their passion is Hummel figurines, vintage R2D2 replicas, or anything in between, collectors are always a little strange. In these modern, upright-walking individuals, the ancient hunter/gatherer instincts never quite evolved away. But record collectors are perhaps the fiercest of the bunch. Take Butler, for example. He has 20,000 records—and that's just full-lengths.
"They're everywhere," he says. "All over the house. All over the garage. Sometimes in my car."
Each record show is packed with people nursing near-Joe-sized record addictions. But recently, buying records has gained notoriety outside the music-nerd community. Neilson Soundscan's 2008 sales tally recorded people buying 89 percent more records in 2008 than in 2007. There are many reasons for this surge in popularity. CD sales have plummeted as listeners continue to switch to mp3s. Yet in an age when bands' back catalogs are just a few illegal but free mouse clicks away, people are beginning to feel nostalgic for physical media. Sure, you can view digitally bastardized album artwork on an iPod screen, but there's nothing like being able to touch the real thing. And as the CD's death rattle continues to echo down the sales charts, more people are opting to put their money not in a palm-sized musical gadget, but in 12 inches of vinyl goodness.
For local record vendor John Kass, choosing vinyl over other media is a no-brainer.
"It just feels like more of an artifact than a CD does," he says. "You can make a CD at home on your computer. You can download it. Make it. You can copy the cover. You can literally do a pretty good job making one right at home. So it just doesn't seem as real as a record, which is something you can't make at home."
Kass formerly worked at Alternative Distribution Alliance, one of the largest distributors of new vinyl in the United States. During his tenure as a sales rep, he had an intimate view of the fall and rise of vinyl.
"When I started there in the mid-'90s, interest in vinyl was at probably its lowest point. Everybody was all about CDs," he says. "And I literally watched the increase grow and grow and grow. I had one customer who was literally buying records by the semi load. The manufacturing couldn't keep up. Nobody had prepared for this kind of thing to happen. Right now the public's perception of vinyl is the best it has been in 20 years, easy. At the same time, I think the public's perception of CDs is at the lowest it has been since they came out."
The record show is the case in point. In the last year, Tom Novak says he has seen the crowd increasing. Average attendance has grown to 500 for the one-day events. And as the number of attendees rises, the demographic is getting younger. "I think they've become aware of this thing they didn't grow up with," he says. "For us it has never stopped. It's not like vinyl is now back."
The modern vinyl LP, introduced by Columbia Records, turned 60 last year. For today's teens and twentysomethings, who have been distracted by a barrage of media platforms during their lives, vinyl felt like a relic too passé in a time when even Dad replaced his Beatles records with CDs. Now it seems Generation Y has collectively raided its parents' attic record collections at the same time as its purchasing power is beginning to blossom.